So, thanks to the guys at The Motor Report I was at the Australian International Motor Show Sydney on press/industry day. For free. Getting wined and dined (well, coffeed and sandwiched) by the car manufacturers. Then, the day after, I was back as a guest of Volkswagen for the 'official' launch of the Golf GTi Pirelli. Great car, and yes, it is a hard life.
As I wandered through the stands though, there's only one thing that I can really say about the event. It?s so painfully boring. Dead, dead boring.
I can appreciate the aesthetics of a car. Whether it be a quick glance at its overall shape or examining every little crease and curve, there are some amazing things of beauty in the automotive world - and I like looking at them. I could pore over them for hours.
Why is it then, that when I am stuck in a room full of hot automotive art that I spent most of the time on my laptop watching stupid videos on YouTube? Why am I looking at the back of a Honda Odyssey, wondering if anyone would notice if I went to sleep in the back of it?
Part of it, I suspect, is that Australian motor shows get so few truly new concept cars. Unless Holden or Ford trot something out, chances are that every glimpse of the future at an Australian motor show has already been glimpsed and photographed from every angle at an overseas show. Thanks to the Internet, I'll have already thoroughly seen the car before I walk up to the stand.
It?s like reading a script before seeing a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Yes it's better when you have actors and sets and explosions, and the plot itself is more predictable than Jeremy Clarkson's pauses, but when you already know every twist and turn the reality loses its lustre. "That Ferrari California? A gorgeous sculpture that reminds you, once again, why nobody builds automotive lust like the Italians. Now pass me another sanger and a cup of tea."
The other thing, of course, is that for every California you've got a dozen yawnfests of cars that are undoubtedly safer, more economical, and all-round better than previous generations... but who gives a shit? I quite like the Murano and I'd consider buying one if I was in the market for that kind of thing, but I wouldn't plonk down $18 (in theory) to go see it. It?s not that kind of car.
Then, for the dozens of genuinely new family hacks you've got hundreds of cars that you could see for free by standing on the side of the road. Ones you can sit in for free at your local dealership. Ones that you can potentially even drive. Paying good money to peer through the window of some hatchback you're considering paying even better money for, when you can go test drive one for free, seems more than a bit cock-eyed.
Now the cool cars at the show, the ones you want to lick, it?s not like they invite you in to heavy-breathe and dribble all over their super-expensive upholstery. Even with media accreditation, we had to do all kinds of grovelling to be allowed near some of the concept or high-end cars. We got lucky that the guy from Cadillac was pretty happy to let us near the gorgeous CTS coupe and Ferrari and Maserati let us in after a lot of convincing. I don't think anyone managed to get past Lamborghini's barriers without waving a bank statement with a balance that could be confused with a phone number, and the guys in Supercar Central were happy to talk to me while I stayed outside of touching distance of my beloved Zonda Roadster.
However, I think the main reason I'm bored sideways is because the cars are just sitting there on a stand. Completely inert. It?s like wandering through taxidermy - all the animals have a touch of unreality mixed with the sense that an otherwise magnificent creature has passed away.
Cars look different on the move. Details that might not work in photos or sitting in a static stand don't matter when the car is on the move. It?s all the other details of a great car - its road presence, its sound, the way it carries itself - that just don't happen inside an exhibition hall. As a driver, that's what sells it to me.
I saw the new Nissan GT-R on press day, and I got a sit in it, and that was OK I guess. The day after, Big Carl and the guys at the International Motor Group let TMR get a closer look at the car, and Carl took us all for a ride in his personal beast. Ads for Saw V have been adorning the buses in my area. I was wondering if I could learn some good tips on how to harvest the kidneys of random strangers to pay for my own R35 the first time Carl punched the throttle. I can't say I got the same reaction when I saw it at AIMS. I don't think I got a reaction at all.
The best car publicity show I've ever been to was years ago, before I even thought about writing about cars, and was put on by Proton. The little Satria GTi, that famously had its chassis tuned by Lotus, was available to the public for test drives on a race track. You didn't need a press pass. You didn't need to be connected. Just a phone call to register.
I came far closer to buying a Satria after pitting in at Eastern Creek with the adrenaline pumping than I did staring through its window with sore feet.
On paper the Satria wasn't much chop. It was based on the previous generation of Mitsubishi Mirage... and since Mitsubishi was already selling the Mirage at the time, the car was already old. The engine wasn't particularly powerful either. The car had rounded curves except for its square exhaust tips, which made them seem like a tacky afterthought. The 'Tuned by Lotus' badge on the rear looked more than a bit naff. The brand itself didn't command much respect. There's no way that, at a Motor Show, I'd give the Proton stand more than half a glance.
On the track all that didn't matter. When I could experience the best part of the car, I was hooked. Around Eastern Creek I couldn't see that wanky badge but I could feel what it meant. The suspension was amazing, especially for the price. It was at least as good as the BMW 323i I'd driven as a part of their advanced driver training course. I liked it and, if the Satria had been available when I bought the Pulsar I had at the time, I probably would have been swayed. Now that's marketing.
When it came to trying to sell me a sporty hot hatch, a race-track test drive was shitloads better to showcase the car than wandering around an exhibition centre. I'd love to see another company put that kind of show on to the general public, and not just high-end companies like BMW's M Division who run track days for owners to try out the new models.
The thing is, the manufacturers kind of know the pointlessness of Australian motor shows too. A lot of companies realise that putting on a stand at an Australian motor show is a waste of money. It's not exactly cheap, and it doesn't generate the kind of leads that you want for that much money spent.
That's why Porsche and Jaguar alternate between Sydney and Melbourne, doing only one of the two a year. BMW, Mercedes, basically all the aspirational premium brands, came down with a major case of the CBF's this year. I'm surprised Ferrari and Lamborghini showed up at all. The local manufacturers try to put a positive spin on it, as you'd expect them to, but the sad fact is that in these times of economic hardship you can see more manufacturers pulling out as it becomes harder to justify financially.
I can only hope that if they leave the local motor show circuit that they do their own marketing thing: take sports cars out on the track; go off-roading in 4WDs; take convertibles out on winding coastal roads.
If a company makes good cars, they're more likely to sell them that way; people will buy them based on their strengths - if you can show them in a setting that's going to help them connect.
The only companies who need to worry about such an idea are those that build crap cars - you'll be able to pick them in my vision of the future because they'll be the companies still plying their trade at motor shows.